Michael Kenneth Williams returns to television Wednesday playing a down-on-his-luck, against-stereotype, gay, black criminal. No, it is not 2003 and “The Wire” is not coming back. However, Williams is again stepping into a groundbreaking TV role in the new Sundance series “Hap and Leonard.”
The new six-episode “event series,” based on the Joe Lansdale book series of the same name, follows the story of two recently unemployed, lifelong best friends — the titular Hap (James Purefoy) and Leonard (Williams) — who get roped into a get-rich-quick scheme by Hap’s ex, the femme fatale Trudy (“Mad Men” vet Christina Hendricks), involving a million dollar cache at the bottom of a river.
Leonard is a gay man, but not just that, he is a poor, irascible, sometimes violent, gay southerner in a small Texas town in the 1980s — how is that for diverse, multidimensional characters. Williams’ Leonard is the inarguable high point in a show that, though uneven in quality, bucks stereotypes at every turn.
Executive producer Jim Mickle says the 1980s time period and Hap’s acceptance of Leonard, allowed the show to take a fresh approach to the character’s sexuality.
“It feels like [with the early gay characters] on TV, there was not a subtlety about it or it was done as some kind of mass appeal version,” said Mickle. “What is cool in the book and here is we didn’t make it a big thing. It doesn’t change their relationship or the world. It is not his character that is an abnormality, it is the way people look at it. It’s weird to everybody else, but not to the two of them.”
In keeping with Leonard’s incidental homosexuality, the reveal comes late in the pilot, only after a scene with Hendricks' Trudy that serves as a fake-out of possible past sexual tension.
“What was fun was letting you get to know [Leonard] and then sprinkling it in later, like “Oh, by the way [he is gay],” said Mickle.
That is a departure from the books, where Lansdale wastes no time putting his cards on the table.
“He always finds a way to have a conversation about homosexuality by page three,” Mickle joked.
The show keeps things a little more subtle, and not just with sexuality. The underlying tensions in Hap and Leonard’s interracial friendship — Hap casually drops the “N” word in the first episode, and not with malice — the show’s eventual Bernie Sanders-echoing social justice themes, and the more thriller-centric aspects of the show all creep in slowly and under the radar.
“It was fun taking advantage of the big canvas to talk about these guys,” said Mickle. “I’m not a big fan of exposition. I think a lot of sloppy storytelling is about making things clear right away. It was fun to have faith in the audience that they are going to pick up on things, especially since they start off like these two ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ type of guys.”
“Hap and Leonard” is far from perfect — the show sometimes leans too heavily on tired film noir cliches and worn canned dialogue. However, the genre-mashing “event series” does introduce a cast of unique characters that reject easy definition. None makes the show more watchable than Leonard.
Mickle says the role was tailor-made for Williams, who made gay, Baltimore stick-up man Omar Little on HBO’s “The Wire” one of the most iconic characters in TV history.
“We always thought he would have been the perfect guy. We were saying, ‘Who is the most Michael K. Williams guy we can get?’”
Mickle got his man, but only time will tell if Leonard resonates with fans as much as Omar Little did over a decade ago — President Barack Obama has called Little his favorite TV character ever. The new character may share some similarities with Little, but Mickle says Williams approached the role with a fresh intensity.
“[Williams] doesn’t discriminate when choosing roles by if he has done something similar before, he just goes by his gut instinct and, luckily for us, his gut was telling him to do this.”
"Hap and Leonard" premieres March 2, 2016 at 10 p.m. EST on Sundance TV.